Feb 9, 2016

Sordid stories of child abuse undermine confidence in churches

February 8, 2016

THE moment you mention the church and child abuse, people turn off. They’re suffering overload.

After years of hearing about institutional betrayal of young people and their parents, many want something more palatable and uplifting in their lives than these grubby stories. It’s understandable we want to turn away, because our trust and lifelong belief in people and places that deliver moral and spiritual guidance is taking a hammering — probably more than at any time in this nation’s history.

The church at the end of the street doesn’t stand for what it used to.

The brands and reputations of our major churches and some educational institutions are close to being smashed, and irretrievably so.

Their ongoing message — however meaningful — will simply bounce off people who have lost faith and trust. We’re not listening and believing the message any more, no matter what you say.

Harrowing and heart-wrenching stories of child abuse in trusted institutions keep rolling out as the Royal Commission works its way around Australia, flushing out shameful secrets of the past.

Hobart has just had its second sitting, producing sordid stories that made tragic reading. Former Archbishops and Bishops appeared, including a resigned-governor general. Some abjectly apologised and some were near tears. We heard stories of boys at church camps with “sore bottoms”, and bedtime tales of a boy being cajoled by a religious colleague to sleep with a grubby paedophile priest for the night.

There were accusations and denials and courageous testimony from victims.

The courage of the victims, now middle-aged citizens living next door to some of us, is amazing. Most of us can hardly imagine how they’ve struggled through life and how their relationships have suffered. But the ongoing tragedy is the wider community is conditioned and numbed to the barrage of stories emanating from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The worst thing we can do is turn a blind eye, as many church leaders did when this abuse was happening — because we have no idea how deep this pile of human tragedy and abuse really is. Perhaps only a fraction of those abused have stood up.

There’s a fair chance that when all is said and done, the Royal Commission will only have scratched the surface and many clergy will wipe their brows in relief their victims haven’t come forward and thrown them into the commission’s glare.

In an amazing coincidence, running parallel with our Royal Commission is the award-winning movieSpotlight — the story of The Boston Globenewspaper’s year-long investigation into abuse by the Roman Catholic church in that city.

The story, in 2002, rocked the world’s oldest and most trusted institution. The shock-waves at the time went right to the Vatican, which has since heaped praise on this movie.

Spotlight exposed years of child abuse, and uncovered a shameful cover-up at the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal and government institutions.

We’re not listening and believing the message any more …

Not only did the church move pedophile priests between parishes and schools (sound familiar?), but some in the legal profession negotiated “sealed” deals when victims were secretly compensated by the church. Details of which were never to be revealed.

Boston legal firms knew the extent of the abuse, but under confidential cover outside the local court processes, stayed mum. Make your own mind up about that behaviour.

The Boston Globe’s investigative team initially thought they had uncovered a dozen or so abusive priests.

The team took guidance from researchers who said global statistics showed 6 per cent of Roman Catholic priests in any country abused their constituents. The investigation of church and court records nailed almost 90 of 1500 priests across the wider Boston area involved in sexual abuse of children — most covered up by the church and lawyers.

Have we got to the bottom of our problems in Australia?

Do our churches, schools and legal firms have hidden secrets that may never be told? Are there thousands more victims quietly suffering?

More importantly, is the abuse still going on in some way or another as people in authority abuse our kids?

We cannot turn a blind eye, as much as we may be sick of all this. Our legal, religious and educational institutions need to know the parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties of today’s kids are watching out for them.

Rex Gardner is a former chief executive of theMercury and worked as a journalist and in management for News Corp both here and overseas.


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